Christmas TV isn’t all about repeats this year (starting with Doctor Who)
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What to watch on TV this Christmas

Children get the best TV this year, says Rachel Cooke.

The annual story about Christmas repeats so beloved of our tabloid press came with an extra twist this year when Danny Cohen, the BBC’s director of television, “fought back” on Twitter, accusing the journalists who trot out this line about laziness. “BBC schedules full of amazing shows this Christmas,” he wrote, before having a good go at the Mirror, which had insisted that 63 per cent of the BBC’s festive output this year would consist of repeats. Crikey, I thought, as I followed all this. Cohen is right to defend the BBC. If he won’t, why should anyone else? But I felt the fear, too. No one loves the “TV’s Christmas reheats” story the way the Daily Mail does. His wife might like to consider giving him a hard hat and a flak jacket this holiday season.

Still, Cohen can take heart from being (more or less) right. Naturally, ITV has asked Julian Fellowes to dial in a Downton Abbey special, and he has obliged with an episode in which Lord Sinderby invites his new daughter-in-law, Rose, and her awful relatives up to Northumberland to shoot Lord Grantham . . . sorry, I mean grouse (Christmas Day, 9pm). But this, alas, is pretty much it from ITV when it comes to delivering the sorts of shows – comforting and more than a little camp – in front of which Britain’s middle classes are apt to flop with their Crabbie’s ginger wine and chocolate brazils. By contrast, BBC1 not only has Doctor Who (Christmas Day, 6.15pm) and Call the Midwife (Christmas Day, 7.50pm), but the return of Sally Wainwright’s brilliant Last Tango in Halifax (28 December, 9pm) as well as Mapp and Lucia, an adaptation by Steve Pemberton of E F Benson’s divinely funny novels (about two competitively snobbish spinsters in 1930s Rye), starring Anna Chancellor, Miranda Richardson and the biggest set of dentures since Dick Emery’s vicar (29 December, 9.05pm). Of course, I accept that you may not be in a camp mood. Sloe gin and too many Quality Street may simply have increased your misanthropy exponentially – in which case, tune in to Wallander (BBC4, Boxing Day, 9pm), the very first Swedish version of Henning Mankell’s first Wallander novel. This is its British premiere.

For children, there comes an embarrassment of riches in the form of The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, Charlie Higson’s adaptation of Norman Hunter’s much-loved book (BBC1, Christmas Eve, 8.30pm; Harry Hill stars); The Boy in the Dress, an adaptation of David Walliams’s adorable novel (BBC1, Boxing Day, 6.55pm); and Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot (BBC1, New Year’s Day, 6.30pm), in which Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman bring Quentin Blake’s illustrations to life.

Ditto for culture vultures: on Christmas Day BBC4 will screen the Royal Ballet’s Winter’s Tale (7pm) and on 20 December Jeremy Paxman plays Santa (or something) in Christmas University Challenge (BBC2, 8.35pm; the novelist Jonathan Coe is among those taking part). Less highbrow, but twice the fun – like Michael Frayn gone wrong – will be Panto! Mayhem, Make-up and Magic (BBC4, 22 December, 9.25pm), in which a documentary team goes backstage at the Nottingham Arts Theatre as it attempts to stage a Christmas show on a budget of £600. That Day We Sang (BBC2, Boxing Day, 9pm) is Victoria Wood’s TV version of her own musical. Set in Manchester in 1929 and 1969, it tells the story of middle-aged Enid and Tubby as they attend a reunion of the choir in which they sang as children. Imelda Staunton plays Enid and Michael Ball is Tubby, which will be recommendation enough for anyone who saw them in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. On the subject of singing, I also commend The Kid in the Middle, a documentary about Sammy Davis Jr (BBC4, 21 December, 9pm).

Finally: comedy, which has a distinctly valedictory air this year. Man Down, Greg Davies’s batty sitcom about a disaster-prone teacher called Dan, will struggle on without Rik Mayall (who played Dan’s father) in a one-off seasonal special on 23 December (Channel 4, 10pm), and Miranda Hart will say goodbye to the character that made her a household name on BBC1 on Christmas Day (7.15pm) and New Year’s Day (8pm). James Corden’s caper The Wrong Mans, which styles itself as a comedy-drama but seems mostly to want to make us smile, returns to BBC2 on 22 December (9pm), and I don’t expect we’ll see it again for some time, if ever, given that its star is off to host a network chat show in the US.

Toodle-pip, then, to all three. Or, as Mapp and Lucia would have it: au reservoir for now. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution